Ireland in 1845
In 1845 Ireland was part of Britain. The laws of Ireland were decided in London by Parliament. However, Ireland was very different to the rest of Britain in 1845. The majority of the people were Catholics. However, between 1695 and 1829 it had been illegal to be a Catholic. The rest of Britain was Protestant. There was very little industry in Ireland. Only in the north east, around Belfast, was there much industry - the people there were Protestants. Therefore most Irish people made a living from the land. Most of the land was owned by English landlords; many of these lived in England and never visited Ireland. Most tenants could be thrown off their land with only six months' notice. The population of Ireland was about nine million -too many for the land to support. About two and a half million had no employment except when crops were being harvested. They had very little food for much of the year and lived in makeshift shelters in ditches. The rest lived on tiny plots of land, perhaps as little as half an acre. On this they grew potatoes. People living on the smallest plots paid their rent by selling some of their potatoes and perhaps a pig that they had raised during the year. On larger plots wheat, barley and oats were grown in order to pay the rent, but the people lived on potatoes. Living conditions were appalling. In 1837 the 9,000 inhabitants of Tullahobagly in Donegal had between them 10 beds, 93 chairs and 243 stools. Pigs slept with their owners, manure heaps choked doors. In 1845 there were no railways. Reasonable roads linked most settlements but there were few towns and no shops outside of the towns. Most people didn't have any money to buy anything from a shop.
It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they (the Irish labourer and his family) habitually and silently endure... in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water... their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property. Royal Commission February 1845
Census 1841 Housing was divided into four classes - the lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room. Nearly half of the families living in the countryside were found to be living in the lowest class of housing. Here is what it was like in Limerick, in the west of Ireland. The extract is some of the evidence which John McMahon gave the Committee on Agriculture in 1833. McMahon was one of the few wealthy farmers in his area. Do the peasantry eat wheaten bread at all? Never except two days in the year. What are those days? Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. What do they live upon? Potatoes and milk. Nothing else? Nothing else. How is the labourer worse off than he was? In not having work. Many have told me they would be the happiest people that there could be in the world if they could have work six months in the year at eightpence a day (3p). Have all those labourers little patches of land of their own? Yes. How much? Generally an acre. What do they pay? The fortunate man will have to pay from £5 to £8 a year but will have to sell his pig to pay his rent. Do they all wear shoes and stockings? They do, most of them, but boys of 15 or 16 years you may see not wearing a shoe or a stocking. In the hilly or mountain districts is that the case? In the mountain districts there are great numbers of them bare legged, men and women. Committee on Agriculture, 1833
Calories Ten pounds of potatoes 1 pint of milk Total Minimum needed by human body 3459 393 3852 3000
Protein (grams) 45 19 64 70
Calcium 1.92 0.71 2.63 0.56
Vitamin C 444 171 615 525
Potatoes and milk also contain a lot of Vitamins A, B and D. Ten pounds of potatoes was the average daily consumption.
Make a chart to show the differences between Ireland and England in 1845. Explain in as much detail as you can the quality of life of a family living in the fourth class of housing of the 1841 Census. What political feelings might you expect to find among Irish people in 1841? In 1845 the British Government was run by English Protestant landowners. What feelings do you think they might have about poverty in Ireland? What do you think Ireland needed in 1845?
Famine in Ireland
Beginning of August 1845: potato blight is reported on the Isle of Wight. 13 September: it is announced that crops around Dublin are perishing. October: it is clear that two thirds of the potato crop has failed in Ireland. Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, decided that the government had to act. 1.Why was the British government worried by the reports of blight in Ireland? 2.Look at the information on this page and decide for yourself what the government was likely to do and not to do? 3.Apart from famine itself, what else might happen as a result of a shortage of food? Remember a)part of the crop would be kept as seed for the following year; b)some of the food grown would be sold to pay the rent; c)lack of food weakens people's resistance to illness.
Potato blight is brought by a fungus. The plants suddenly wilt. Their leaves turn black and the potatoes become rotten.
The Corn Laws made it illegal to import corn into Britain. The purpose of this was to keep up the price of corn.
DISEASES CAUSED BY FAMINE
Typhus Relapsing fever (both spread by lice) Dysentery, including bacillary dysentery Scurvy
This was a kind of maize grown in America. It was very cheap. However it was very hard and had to be milled twice.
One way the government could help people was to employ them. This was usually on building new roads.
Workhouses existed throughout Britain and Ireland for people who had nowhere to live and no way of earning money. However it was a condition that they lived inside the workhouse. This kept down the number who could be helped. To pay for the workhouses a special rate was paid by the local people who owned a house or land. In many parts of Ireland there were very few people who could afford to pay.
A name given to the principle that a government should not do anything to interfere with the economy; in particular, merchants should be able to buy and sell as they wish. In 1845 the British government was keen to keep to this principle.
October 1845: Peel decided that the Corn Laws should be repealed and ordered 100,000 pounds worth of Indian corn from U.S.A. -to be sold, not to be given away. Lots of committees should be set up all over the country - each one would raise money locally for the purchase of food in order to sell it or give it to those who were starving. The government would give them some money as well. Public works would be started and some fever hospitals would be built. Spring 1846: Evictions started to take place because people weren't able to pay their rent. There was a sharp increase in the number of deaths from starvation. At the same time food was being exported from Ireland. June 1846: The Government stock of Indian corn was nearly exhausted. Trevelyan, chief of the Treasury, refused to buy any more. July 1846: Trevelyan rejected a shipload of Indian corn. He also tried to put an end to the public works but gave in to pressure. Late summer 1846: Complete collapse of the now decides that it will lend money to the won't give any away. Many areas don't have will buy some food for distribution in the potato crop. The government local committees, but it a committee. The government far west.
September 1846: Trevelyan agrees to buy more Indian corn but this will not arrive until February 1847. Starvation is widespread and people are dying. November 1846: The start of the most severe winter in living memory. The whole of Europe is gripped by snow and ice - the Thames freezes over. December 1846: In the town of Cork 100 people are dying every week. The money earned on public works buys very little food because the prices are so high. A Board of Works inspector in Sligo tells Trevelyan: "Pray do something for them. Let me beg of you to attend to this - I cannot express their condition..." A Funeral during the Famine
January 1847:Appeal fund set up in Britain. This raises 470,000 pounds. 2,000 pounds are given by Queen Victoria. The government decides a) no more public works after March; b) soup kitchens are to give away 'soup' free until the summer; c) after the summer those who need help are to get it from the workhouses even if they don't live in the workhouse. After the summer the government will give no more help. Summer 1847: A good crop of potatoes. Summer 1848: Total collapse of the potato crop, again from blight. The British government does nothing. Summer 1849: Since 1845 one and a half million people have died because of famine or disease. SKIBBEREEN, COUNTY CORK On 15 December 1846 Nicholas Cummins, a magistrate of Cork, visited Skibbereen and the surrounding district. The following is taken from a letter that he wrote to the Duke of Wellington, who was an Irishman, to get him to support relief action. "My Lord Duke, without apology or preface, I presume so far to trespass on your Grace as to state to you, and by the use of your illustrious name, to present to the British public the following statement of what I have myself seen within the last three days. Having for many years been intimately connected with the western portion of the County of Cork, and possessing some small property there, I thought it right personally to investigate the truth of several lamentable accounts which had reached me, of the appalling state of misery to which that part of the country was reduced. I accordingly went on the 15th instant to Skibbereen, and to give the instance of one town land which I visited, as an example of the state of their entire coast district, I shall state simply what I there saw. ... Being aware that I should have to witness scenes of frightful hunger, I provided myself with as much bread as five men could carry, and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by the low moaning they were alive -they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on.
In another case, decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told. My clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavour to escape from the throng of pestilence around. When my neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins -the sole covering of herself and baby. The same morning the police opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many clays, and two frozen corpses were found, lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats. A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of her child, a girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stories. In another house, within 500 yards of the cavalry station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying unable to move, under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse. Here are the words of a ballad written about the effects of the famine on Skibbereen in County Cork OLD SKIBBEREEN Oh father dear I often hear you speak of Erin's Isle Her lofty scenes her valleys green her mountains rude and wild They say it is a lovely land wherein a prince might dwell Oh why did you abandon it the reason to me tell. Oh son I loved my native land with energy and pride Till a blight came o'er my crops -my sheep, my cattle died My rent and taxes were too high, I could not them redeem And that's the cruel reason that I left old Skibbereen. Oh well do I remember the bleak December day The landlord and the sheriff came to drive us all away They set my roof on fire with cursed English spleen And that's another reason that I left old Skibbereen. Your mother, too, God rest her soul, fell on the snowy ground She fainted in her anguish, seeing the desolation round She never rose, but passed away from life to mortal dream And found a quiet grave, my boy, in dear old Skibbereen. And you were only two years old and feeble was your frame I could not leave you with my friends, you bore your father's name I wrapt you in my cotamore at the dead of night unseen I heaved a sigh and bade good-bye, to dear old Skibbereen. Oh father dear, the day may come when in answer to the call Each Irishman, with feeling stern, will rally one and all I'll be the man to lead the van beneath the flag of green When loud and high we'll raise the cry -"Remember Skibbereen". van: the front rank or section of an army
1. In many places, even in Skibbereen, there was plenty of food? Why was it that people still starved? 2. If you were able to speak in Parliament in January 1847 what would you have said to the government's proposals to provide soup kitchens and extend the Poor Law? 3. Look at the picture of a funeral in Skibbereen. If you weren't able to read, what would this picture tell you about what was happening in Ireland? Refer to as many parts of the picture as you can. 4. In the winter of 46/47 what else, apart from food, was in short supply? 5. From time to time there were riots in Ireland during these years and some people, calling themselves 'Young Ireland' planned a rebellion. How would this affect the attitude of the British towards the Irish famine? 6. On rough paper make two lists - one for the short term causes of the Famine, the other for the long term causes. Then set these out in a spidergram. Put the words 'Famine in Ireland' in a box in the centre. Then write the causes around it, putting the short term causes close to the centre box and the long term causes around the outside.