Friday, 20 November 2015

The Irish Potato Famine, Part 2

(This is a continuation of my earlier essay on the subject)

The Prime Minister when the potato famine first struck was Sir Robert Peel, seem today as the founder of the Conservative party (though it has always retained its traditional name of "Tory"). He was a highly effective administrator, and dominated Parliament, but was frequently at odds with his own back-benchers. He was a convinced free-trader (or, as we would say nowadays, a free-marketeer), distrustful of state involvement in the economy.
          He was aware of the problems facing Ireland from 1845. He appointed a Special Commission for Poor Relief, encouraged local Board of Works, and organised the importation of American grain. This was sold at a penny a pound, and ground up into a kind of porridge (which was nicknamed “Peel’s brimstone" and was not liked!). He also spent £100,000 on flour stocks, to be held in reserve and sold by local committees, not through retailers. This sum eventually rose to £185,000. (To put these figures in context; total government income and expenditure at this time was about £55 million a year)
   No-one died of starvation in 1845, but the next year brought complete crop failure and economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Suddenly, workhouses in the west of Ireland were besieged by starving people demanding admission; five times the workhouses' capacity. The Irish Board of Works, run by local J.P.s, encouraged schemes to provide employment, paying up to a shilling a day for such work as building roads and draining bogs. £475,000 was spent in the first instance, employing 140,000; but officials were swamped by thousands more of the destitute hoping to be taken on. (Also, in order to maintain fairness, it was ordered that landlords would have to pay for any economic benefits they gained by this work). At this time no American grain was available for purchase and distribution.

Peel’s Conservative party was based in the countryside. During the Napoleonic Wars, grain prices had reached unprecedented heights, and with the return of peace, English farmers were worried about competition from cheap foreign grain. Parliament had therefore passed the Corn Laws, banning or controlling grain imports to keep prices high. The Corn Laws had been modified several times from the 1820s, but were still on the statute book. They were bitterly resented by poor, but also by the increasingly influential urban middle classes. Two northern radicals, Richard Cobden and John Bright had formed the Anti-Corn Law League: a highly effective and very influential campaigning group. Peel was very much a free-trader, and had always had his doubts about the Corn Laws, and in January 1846 he announced his intention to repeal them entirely. The Duke of Wellington (who was himself the scion of a family of Protestant Irish nobility, the Earls of Mornington) grumbled, “Rotten potatoes have put Peel in a damned funk!”, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the Irish crisis was merely an excuse to implement a long-intended policy. Even if it eventually led to cheaper grain, how would it help the starving Irish now? Or, if Peel really believed it would help, why not just announce he was suspending the Corn Laws for the duration of the emergency?

       The Conservative party split. The disaffected were led by two great landowning aristocrats, the Earl of Derby and Lord George Bentinck, but their most effective spokesman was not a landowner and was even questionably English. Benjamin Disraeli had been returned to Parliament for Shrewsbury in 1841, but his attempts to gain ministerial office had been rebuffed by Peel. He now joined Derby and Bentinck in a savage campaign campaign against their party leader, accusing him of a betrayal of principles. Disraeli mocked Peel in his political novels "Coningsby" and "Sybil", written at this time; memorably dismissing the Conservative government as "Tory men and Whig measures”, and now he assailed Peel in brilliant speeches of personal abuse. The humorous magazine "Punch" contributed this item to the debate:-

   "A distressing case of bigamy was heard before the Westminster magistrates, when a Mr Peel was accused of entering into marriage with a lady named Free Trade, his first wife Agriculture being still alive". 

    In May 1846, when Corn Law repeal came before the House of Commons, the Tories voted by two to one against their leader; but the measure passed with the votes of  the opposition Whig party and Daniel O'Connell's Irish Nationalists. Despite his doubts, Wellington stayed loyal to Peel, and helped the Bill pass the House of Lords in June. But Peel also wanted to pass an Irish Coercion Bill, trying to deal with rural violence by suspending Habeas Corpus and allowing special courts without juries and detention without trial. There was no way the Whigs or the Irish Nationalists would support this. On same day as Corn Law repeal passed the Lords, the Coercion Bill came before Commons; and by this time many of Peel’s party so hated their leader that 80 Tories abstained and over 70, led by Disraeli, voted against. Peel was defeated and resigned as Prime Minister a few days later. Peel's government was just one of many in the nineteenth century which collapsed because of Ireland! 
          The Tories remained split, with the bulk of the party now following Derby and Disraeli, but the Peelites (who included most of the ministerial talent, including the young William Gladstone) were now separate, and eventually merged with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party. But for the next 20 years politics was very confused, with the divided Tories, the Irish, and the Whigs themselves split by personal rivalry between Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston. It was a time of weak, unstable governments, coalitions and no clear election majorities for any party. The Tories did not win a majority again till 1874!
    Peel died in 1850. He is often seen as one of the greatest of Prime Ministers, but he had clearly failed to carry his party with him.  Meanwhile, the problems of the Irish famine were inherited by a weak Whig government under Lord John Russell, which survived only because the Peelites made little pretence of opposing it. What would he do?

Russell was an even more doctrinaire free trader than Peel: strongly opposed to state interference in market forces, which in the case of Ireland would mean suspicion of artificial job-creation, or the banning export of food from the country. But the principal weakness of applying free-market doctrines to Ireland was that there was food available, but the starving people had no money with which to buy it.
    Russell was unduly influenced by Secretary Trevelyan, man on the scene in Dublin, who thought free handouts would only encourage what he saw as the Irish tendency to idleness. Reports of a better harvest in 1847 led to the Irish Poor Law Extension Act, which stopped any further financial aid from the central government for Irish poor relief: instead local ratepayers would be responsible. But with no rents coming in, there was a squeeze on the landlords and larger tenant farmers too. In Westport, the Poor Rate was levied at over 50%! Many of the more prosperous inhabitants simply fled from the worst-affected areas.
          Soon there were reports of deaths from starvation, corpses left unburied, even cannibalism. One coroner’s jury, investigating a family who had starved to death, brought in a verdict of willful murder by the Prime Minister! Job-creation schemes run locally by the Irish Board of Works were employing three quarters of a million people, but inexperienced management often resulted in chaos. 300,000 people were receiving daily help from soup-kitchens; a figure which eventually reached around 800,000. Nearly a million were reported to be seeking admission to workhouses, which became grossly overcrowded, and the managers were simply unable to cope. The lack of sufficient clean drinking water, inadequate cleaning-out of filth and no washing of bedding resulted in epidemics of typhus, dysentery and cholera; killing far more people than died of actual starvation. New measures were enacted for setting up fever hospitals adjacent to the workhouses; but these were often no more than temporary lean-to shelters. Between 1847 and 1851 half a million died in these shelters, with a high death-rate also amongst doctors and nurses.  The Castlerea Union Workhouse in County Roscommon was severely overcrowded, and deaths ran at 74 per week, including the boss and his wife!
     The public in England were not completely ignorant of conditions in Ireland. There was, of course, no means yet of publishing photographs in newspapers, but magazines such as the "Illustrated London News" printed engravings by artists of dreadful scenes of suffering. Often these were considered to be exaggerations, or just ignored. "Punch" never took the famine seriously; instead publishing a grotesque cartoon of the Irish Nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell, with the caption "The real potato blight!". In the absence of decisive intervention by the state, a million pounds was raised by private charities; perhaps half coming from the USA. The Quaker Relief Committee was particularly active, distributing food and clothing and attempting some economic improvements, such as the development of a fishing industry. But none of this could do more than alleviate the disaster.

As tenants were unable to pay rent, they were evicted from their holdings. In 1846, 4600 families were evicted, rising to 16,500 in 1849 and 20,000 in 1850. They might be given some small financial compensation, but then their huts were destroyed to stop them coming back. The underlying motive was simply to get them out of the area and make them someone else’s responsibility. But often evicted families just squatted on vacant land, having nowhere else to go!
     In Strokestown, County Roscommon, there was an estate of 9000 acres, which Arthur Young the agricultural expert had once considered to be prosperous. But now 479 families on the estate had paid no rent for two years. In 1847 3000 Strokestown tenants were evicted; the majority soon dying. The Strokestown agent, Major Denis Mahon, decided financing emigration was cheaper than paying the Poor Rate, so he paid £4,000 to assist a thousand Strokestown tenants to emigrate to Canada. 
       Emigration was indeed the only real solution to Ireland's problems. Countless thousands of Irish flooded into Britain's cities, especially Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where lived in the vilest slums and were hated because they were willing to work for  wages well below what an Englishman would consider acceptable. Both Engels and Dickens noted that poorest and most degraded slum-dwellers were usually Irish. Many socialists considered that the influx of cheap Irish labour had seriously undermined the trades union movement.
      Others crossed the Atlantic: 230,000 in 1847 alone; 1½ million between 1845 and 1850: almost a fifth of the entire population of Ireland! But they faced weeks in low-standard, overcrowded ships, where epidemics were all too common. 496 souls from Strokestown boarded the “Virginius” at Liverpool, but by their arrival in Canada 158 had died (plus 7 of the crew) and 180 were ill. (On another ship, the captain had to pay his crew a pound for every dead body brought up from the hold!). On arrival they were held at quarantine stations. 5,500 Irish immigrants died at the Grosse Ile quarantine station in Quebec in 1847, as typhus and dysentery swept Canadian cities. Those who survived were often robbed of any money and possessions they had left by thieves and confidence tricksters. They settled into the vilest slums in New York, Boston and other east coast cities.

Not surprisingly, there was rising rural violence in Ireland. Landlords often accused Catholic priests of stirring up trouble, despite this having been forbidden by the Pope. In August 1847 there was a bitter dispute between the aforementioned Major Mahon of Strokestown and a local priest, Father McDermott; and in November Mahon was shot by unknown killers. Other landlords were also threatened. The government responded with new a Coercion Act; troops and police were rushed in and tenants in the area evicted. In February 1848 two men in Strokestown were arrested (neither being a local tenant), were convicted of conspiracy to murder, and hanged that summer amidst a strong military presence. By 1881 the population of the Strokestown estate had fallen by 88%!

Ireland suffered from a lack of political leadership at this crucial time. Daniel O'Connell's campaign to repeal the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland had failed completely in the early 1840s and his dominance had come under pressure from a more militant group under Smith O'Brien, known as "Young Ireland". O'Connell died in 1847, and it was thirty years before Ireland found another leader of his stature. The British government's willingness to help Ireland was hardly encouraged by the fiasco of O'Brien's attempted armed rising in 1848. The British courts, very sensibly, refused to make a martyr of O'Brien, who was transported to Tasmania but reprieved six years later and allowed to return. 

In the end, the famine petered out, but the population of Ireland has never recovered since. The Irish emigrants took their hated of Britain to the USA, where it endures in tradition to this day. Henceforth, radical republican movements could always expect funding from America.

One unexpected consequence of mass Irish immigration into Britain was seen when the first professional football clubs were formed a generation later. Everyone knows that in Glasgow, where divisions were fiercest, Rangers were the Scots Protestant team and Celtic the team of the Irish Catholics; but there was a similar division in Edinburgh between Hearts and Hibernian; and to some extent in Liverpool (Liverpool versus Everton) and even in Manchester (City versus United). To this day, the Irish tricolour can be seen at Celtic matches.  

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