Home » Irish History 1845-51 (Page 2)
Category Archives: Irish History 1845-51
Reading about the famine that afflicted Ireland in the years 1845-52 is to discover story after story of the horrors that ensued. The families found naked and dead huddled together in some filthy hovel; the evictions that left other families to seek shelter in ditches and under hedges.
It is also to enter the strange world of statistics. Did a million die, or more? Did a similar number emigrate? We have census figures for 1841 and 1851 which show a fall in population of around two million. Some have tried to interpolate what was the likely increase in population over the 5 years from 1841 to 1846 when starvation really began to bite. It is then that the possibility of up to 3 million reduction in population begins to look possible. And no-one can be certain of the accuracy of the census figures to begin with.
Without in any way wishing to belittle the significance of such a monstrous figure, I want to know more about the 6 million or so who survived. How many of them went through 7 years of suffering, losing parents, siblings, off-spring? How many were sufficiently well endowed with material goods to continue to thrive? How did they respond to the appalling conditions they must have witnessed?
One of the biggest contributors to the number of deaths was not starvation but disease. And infectious diseases like Cholera, Dysentery and Typhus did not confine themselves to the hungry. There is a considerable number recorded deaths among doctors, priests and others tending the sick.
I think it fair to suppose that, faced with such a tragedy today, most ordinary citizens would react in two ways. First they would launch a fund raising effort to help and, second, they would institute a political movement with the aim of forcing the government to take appropriate action. Where, I wonder, was the 19th Century equivalent of the Occupy movement?
There was one such organisation – the Young Ireland movement. And it did attempt to mount an armed rebellion. This was quickly quashed by the British government. Why did that not galvanise a much larger section of the population, in the way that the internment and execution of the 1916 rebel leaders did 70 years later?
There were, too, many donations of money from many different quarters, including Queen Victoria.
I have concluded that the story that I want to tell is that of those who lived through the horror and survived. One such individual is Captain Arthur Kennedy. You can read a lot about him here on the County Clare Library Service website. In brief, he was appointed as Poor Law Inspector, responsible for ensuring that the Poor Law Union that covered a vast area of County Clare from its base in the Kilrush workhouse, was operating properly.
He arrived there with a young family late in 1847 and remained for 2 1/2 years. His reports were published as a Parliamentary Blue Book, from which the Clare Library Service website has many quotations. He seems to have been at loggerheads with the Board of Guardians and its chairman, Colonel Crofton Vandeleur who owned most of the town.
What the published reports, and the material on the Library website, much of which is based on contemporary newspaper articles, does not say is anything about the family’s domestic situation. Where did they live? Assuming the children attended the local school, how did they relate to the other pupils, given their father’s job and the fact they were outsiders? Did the Kennedy’s socialise with Vandeleur and the other Guardians? What, in fact, was life really like for a middle class family thrust into the heart of an unfolding nightmare which they were duty bound to try to alleviate?
I have spent the past year gathering generalised background material to provide a context for what I believe could be an enlightening historical novel based on the life of The Poor Law Inspector. Now I need to start writing. I also need to visit Kilrush in order to glean what information I can about the lives of the 70% of those who resided there in 1845 and survived the next 7 years.
The third of my series of posts on poverty examines the transfer of poor laws from the British mainland to Ireland.
The Dublin House of Industry was established in 1772 to care for vagrants and beggars. In times of more general distress, the work of this and similar institutions in other cities was supplemented by ad hoc provision by the parishes raising funds by subscription. Reading accounts of the conditions that prevailed in the early 1780s, for example, it is clear that the response to widespread food and fuel shortages that occurred consisted of a combination of fire-fighting with limited financial resources and attempts by the government in Dublin to control markets and prices. Such attempts were actively opposed by merchants who often combined to frustrate philanthropic actions such as the donation of 2000 tons of free coal from the mine owner Sir James Lowther.
In addition to fund raising appeals by the parishes and government’s attempts to control markets and prices, some landlords offered alternative employment to workers displaced by such events as the failure of the flax crop in 1782 that had left weavers unable to ply their trade. In rural areas many communities took the law into their own hands, waylaying cartloads of grain destined for the cities.
According to James Kelly (Kelly, James. “Scarcity and Poor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Subsistence Crisis of 1782-4.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, 1992, pp. 38–62. www.jstor.org/stable/30008004.), “Acts of benevolence by landlords and clergy, and donations to institutions like the Houses of Industry, were vital for the control of distress in late eighteenth century Ireland. … In Dublin the House of Industry was the most important agent of relief, but it worked with local committees and was heavily reliant on donations…. while in the countryside landlords, wealthy farmers and clergy were indispensable.”
Note, however, that whereas there were numerous workhouses in England and Wales there were only a handful in Ireland, even though poverty and famines, or near famines, were much more common there. After the Act of Union at the commencement of the 19th century, the government in London considered various ways of tackling this problem which was beginning to effect social cohesion in England. A growing number of poor Irish families were migrating to England. Whilst they were not able to take advantage of the poor relief available there until they had established 5 years residence, their presence was perceived as a threat to both wages and social order.
(Astute readers will note a similarity between English attitudes to Irish immigrants 200 years ago and present day resentment towards migrants from Eastern Europe in England and from Mexico in the USA.)
Education was seen as one important way of ending poverty, by equipping individuals with the skills to enable them to obtain work. During the second half of the 18th century a number of Protestant organisations established schools in Ireland. Catholics had been banned from providing education as part of the policy of suppressing the old religion. Once the ban was lifted, Catholic schools also began to appear. Unlike the Protestant schools, however, these did not receive government support. By the 1830s, the government decided to establish a National school system which would be multi-denominational, run by committees containing both Catholic and Protestant members.
Although this put Ireland ahead of the mainland in terms of state funded education, Ireland was not progressing economically or socially. A number of government initiated surveys and reports were commissioned but their recommendations were generally deemed to be too costly to implement. One such commission, headed by the Protestant Arch Bishop of Dublin, recommended that the poor law, as established in England, would not work in Ireland because of the lack of available work. This was unacceptable to the authorities in London who sent George Nicholls, one of the commissioners responsible for administering the poor law in England, to look at the situation in Ireland.
In an earlier post I described how the English regarded themselves as superior to the native populations of the lands they conquered. However well justified this attitude might have seemed given the evident successes achieved by English Soldiers, Seamen and Scientists, it looks today like extreme arrogance. The modern liberal view is that a person’s ethnic origin has no bearing on his or her intelligence or ability to acquire useful skills. This was not so in the first half of the nineteenth century. The English establishment viewed the native Irish in exactly the same way as they viewed the natives of Africa.
The remarks of the poor law commissioner, George Nicholls, illustrate this perfectly. “They seem to feel no pride, no emulation; to be heedless of the present, and reckless of the future. They do not … strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts. Their cabins still continue slovenly, smoky, filthy, almost without furniture or any article of convenience or decency … If you point out these circumstances to the peasantry themselves, and endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty …’Sure how can we help it, we are so poor’ … whilst at the same time (he) is smoking tobacco, and had probably not denied himself the enjoyment of whiskey.”
(I have offered a possible explanation for the apparent indolence of Irish paupers based on recent studies in Neuroscience.)
His conclusion was that a new poor law should be enacted for Ireland which should include the provision of a network of 130 workhouses and that these institutions would not be permitted to provide relief other than within their walls. It was felt that this would deter all but those deemed to be the most deserving people from claiming relief. Each workhouse would have space for 800 persons, would be administered by a Board of Guardians and financed by a local property tax.
This policy was quickly implemented. When the potato crop failed in the second half of the 1840s this network of workhouses became the bases from which relief would be administered. They would prove to be utterly inadequate to perform the task, although, in fairness to the Boards of Guardians, the majority did their best with the limited resources available to them.
The second of my series of posts on poverty examines the evolution of poor laws in the British mainland.
Prior to the reformation – the switch, over large parts of Europe, from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism – the poor were looked after by the monasteries. The funding for this came from the patronage the monasteries received from the land owners and from the tythes paid by farmers. Whilst the old, the sick and the disabled were provided with food, shelter and healing, the able bodied were provided with work, either in farms that formed an important part of the religious community or on building construction and maintenance.
For the able bodied individual who could not find work near his place of abode the only alternative was to travel to a place where there was work available. Others might travel from place to place plying a particular trade, or offering a service, moving on when the demand for the service in a that area had been satisfied.
Throughout this period there were years when crops failed causing famine. Epidemics of disease occurred from time to time. The ‘Black Death’, the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, for example, reduced the population by 30%. Wars, too, took their toll on populations, although they also provided a source of income for those who chose, or were forced, to join one or other of the many armies that took part. With the men away fighting the bulk of the labour necessary to grow food fell to the women. Wars were often responsible for the failure of crops. This was sometimes a deliberate act of destruction, perpetrated as part of the campaign. At other times it was the consequence of the absence of farm labourers meaning that insufficient crops were sown.
The destruction of the monasteries that followed the Reformation meant they were no longer able to carry on the work of alleviating poverty. In Britain, it now fell to the Parishes to administer poor relief under the first of a string of ‘poor laws’ that were introduced and amended throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
In order to qualify for relief you had to be able to prove a connection to the parish from which you were claiming. If you were a stranger, you would need to travel to the parish where you were born or where you could demonstrate a long term affinity. Such relief, when applied to individuals deemed capable of work, was conditional upon the individual undertaking some form of work in return. It was funded by levying a rate (property tax based on the notional value of the property) on the landowners of the parish.
By the 18th century this idea, that assistance must be earned by performing work, had become well established. After all, someone else’s labour had created the food, clothing and shelter with which you were being provided. It was only right that you should perform some service in return.
For those not completely indigent, survival depended on payment received in return for their labour, whether as agricultural labourers or in the factories appearing in the growing industrial centres. The balance between wages and the price of food and other necessities became an important factor influencing the extent of poverty.
The practical manifestation of the principle of work in return for relief for the indigent was the workhouse. The first of these was established in Bristol at the end of the 17th century. The movement grew throughout the 18th century as the larger parishes, and groups of small parishes set up similar institutions. By 1776 there were over 1900 such institutions in England and Wales, housing an estimated 100,000 individuals, most of them children, sick or elderly.
Coming next: The Poor Law as Applied in Ireland
To see my post about Victorian Britain’s sense of superiority click here.
I’ve been studying – and attempting to write a book about – the famine that devastated Ireland in the years 1845-52. No such study is complete without an analysis of the attitudes of the British towards Irish and English paupers. This is the first of a series of posts the overarching title of which is “Dealing with Poverty – a Historical Perspective”. This one deals with the evolution of the feeling of superiority that characterised the elites in Victorian Britain.
By the nineteenth century British explorers and traders had for more than two hundred years traveled the world, discovering new lands bordering the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They developed trade links with the indigenous populations of these lands and profited enormously from that trade. They were not alone. Dutch, French, Spanish and Portugese merchants and adventurers were doing the same. Conflicts often ensued, engendering frequent wars. Britain usually came out on top and, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, large parts of Africa as well as the Indian sub-continent, all of Australia, New Zealand, Many Pacific Islands, Southern China and most of North America were governed by the British monarchy or its authorised agents.
The oldest of these colonies, those on the Eastern seaboard of North America, had formed themselves into the United States of America, fought for and won independence. But there were many other lands that offered opportunities for those seeking adventure.
At the same time it could be said that Britain was leading the way in scientific
advancement. Some of those early explorers, such as James Cook, had pioneered techniques of surveying and map making as well as bringing back numerous geological and botanical specimens to add to the world’s fund of knowledge. Others had developed, and conducted experiments to prove, scientific theories that formed the basis of our modern understanding of chemistry, physics, astronomy and medicine.
Little wonder, then, that they regarded themselves, their beliefs and their systems of government to be superior to any others. In particular, the old ideas embodied by the Roman Catholic Church were deemed to be barely superior to the paganistic practices and idolatry of the natives of Africa, the far East and North America who had proved so easy to exploit. If certain among the Irish chose to cling to such outdated notions, if those same people were also poor and ignorant, then must there not be a causal link between the two? All that was necessary for the Irish to escape from their fate was for them to acquire the enlightened Protestant education that had produced the scholars, sailors and merchants that had made the acquisition of such an empire possible.
It was certainly the case that many of these colonies needed labour. They especially needed people who were capable of taking undeveloped land and turning it into productive farmland. Successful farmers from across the British Isles were, therefore, encouraged to emigrate to the colonies. And individuals who chose to defy the law by stealing could be sent as punishment to work as slave labour.
Philosophical and social studies
Educated Britons did not stop at developing and testing scientific theories. They concerned themselves with philosophical and social problems, especially those associated with the increasing population and the poverty that seemed inevitably to accompany it. How was it possible to ensure that the production of food kept pace with the growing number of mouths to feed? As the industrial revolution progressed and more people left the countryside for over-crowded cities, the old pattern of living, in which food was transported over relatively short distances to markets close to where people lived, was superceded by new modes of transport. Canals, railways and metaled roads made it possible to transport food from the fields to markets in the burgeoning centres of manufacturing.
A new field of study opened up as scholars attempted to understand the increasingly complex relationship between production and consumption and the problem of ensuring that workers, who no longer had access to the possibility of growing even some of their own food, were able to earn enough from their new activities, operating machinery, to provide the basic necessities of life.
How to share the wealth produced by the activities of merchant explorers and, later, by machines, among the whole population, instead of enriching a few whilst the majority struggled in conditions of abject poverty? Men like Adam Smith pointed out that rent placed an added, unfair, burden on wealth creators. Others speculated about the relationship between increases in food production and the growth in population.
Population vs agricultural capacity
On the one hand the greater the number of people employed in all kinds of production, the more of everything that could be produced. On the other, the more food that was available, the longer people tended to live, especially young people. Whereas it was, in the past, not uncommon for children to die from any of a variety of diseases before reaching puberty, the more well fed they were the more likely they were to survive into adulthood and become parents themselves. Was there a limit on the ability of the available land to produce sufficient food?
One of the thinkers of the period, Thomas Malthus, examined the evidence and concluded that there was, indeed, a limit to the food production capacity of the land. The population had consistently grown at a faster rate than had the volume of food production. It was, he insisted, necessary to take steps to limit the growth of population, especially among the very poor. If they produced fewer children it would be easier to ensure that those children were well fed and housed to an acceptable standard. It might even be possible to end the practice of sending children out to work at a very young age. They could be sent, instead, to school where education would fit them for a better life.
For me there is a mystery at the heart of the story of the famine that devastated Ireland during the years from 1845-52. Why did those who suffered not fight back more vigorously? There certainly were incidents of theft, often punished severely. There were demonstrations outside the premises of merchants. There was a small rebellion by a group calling themselves “Young Ireland”, all of whom were comparatively wealthy. But accounts of such incidents are rare when compared to the numerous tales of people dying in their homes, succumbing to a dreadful apathy and resignation.
It was not only during the famine that Irish paupers were observed to be exhibiting such attitudes. George Nicholls, Poor law commissioner, noted more than a dozen years before the potato blight struck. “If you … endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty”. Words that are revealing not only in the prejudice of the observer that they clearly indicate.
It is tempting to suggest that religion was to blame for this. The belief that the conditions the people endured were providential, that they were inflicted upon them as punishment for supposed sins, was certainly expressed in many quarters. The notion that prayers could provide the answer to a person’s problems, central to both Catholicism and Protestantism, encourages the idea that God will provide. And there is ample evidence that proselytising elements within Protestantism took advantage of the situation to preach the need for conversion to what to them was the “true faith”.
I think, however, that modern science provides us with a much more rational answer. To fully understand the impact of this it is helpful to recall that famines, or near famines, caused by crop failure were frequent occurrences in the century or more that preceded the mid-nineteen-hundreds
Whilst there is evidence that the highly nutritious potato diet ensured that young men joining the British armed forces or working on English infrastructure projects were on the whole taller and stronger than their English counterparts, it is not unreasonable to assume that these individuals left Ireland to take up such employment before the annual summer dearth, the period following exhaustion of last years stock and before the new harvest was available. Those whom they left behind, principally women and children, would have endured 2 to 3 months of near starvation before the new crop was ready to harvest.
Neuroscience is a comparatively modern discipline. Some of its practitioners have carried out studies aimed at identifying the impact of diet and nutrition upon the development of the human brain. Many of these are aimed at assessing the value of various dietary supplements administered to pregnant women and infants. What they demonstrate inter alia is that there is a strong link between inadequate nutrition and impeded pre- and post-natal mental development.
It is, surely, not unreasonable to conclude that any child born during the ‘waiting months’ of July and August, or one or two months after that, would have his or her mental development impaired as a result of the absence of certain nutrients from their diet, or that of their mother in the final semester of pregnancy.
Furthermore, the periodic famines and food shortages that occurred in the years leading up to the years of potato blight, would suggest that there were many years during which a significant number of births were so affected.
And what, precisely, are those effects? In March 2013 the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience published a review of published papers on the subject (The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood, Anett Nyaradi, Jianghong Li, Siobhan Hickling, Jonathan Foster, and Wendy H. Oddy). Some of the conclusions reached are interesting:
- Since rapid brain growth occurs during the first 2 years of life (and by the age of 2 the brain reaches 80% of its adult weight), this period of life may be particularly sensitive to deficiencies in diet
- studies of infants with vitamin B12 deficiencies reported a variety of abnormal clinical and radiological signs, including: hypotonic muscles, involuntary muscle movements, apathy, cerebral atrophy, and demyelination of nerve cells
- severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy may cause “cretinism” in children
- most observational studies on iodine deficient children found some degree of cognitive impairment
- malnourished children have less energy and interest for learning that negatively influences cognitive development
- even mild but persistent malnutrition in early life (i.e., during the first 2 years of life) negatively influences reasoning, visuospatial functions, IQ, language development, attention, learning, and academic achievement
What does all this mean? I think the key point is that, whereas Nicholls and other English officials held the belief that the Irish were responsible for their condition because of an innate indolence and lassitude, the truth is the opposite: it was their condition that caused the observed behavioural deficiencies.
Given repeated shortages of food over several generations, there can, surely, be little doubt that important minerals and/or vitamins were often lacking and that, as a consequence, pregnancies entered into during or shortly before such periods had a high likelihood of producing individuals with less than optimal subsequent mental development.
Janet Cameron has posted a thoughtful blog about the pitfalls of historical writing. In my reading about the Great Irish Famine I have yet to discover a full length book by an English historian, something I believe is necessary in order to gain a proper English perspective on the events. I have read several books by Irish historians and it is sometimes too easy to conclude that the writer’s view point – the unconditional condemnation of the British authorities and the British landlords – is distorted by excessive subjectivity.
That is not to say that I have not read accounts by English historians that form part of a work covering the period as a whole and including the famine as one of many episodes in the history of Victorian Britain.
Such accounts bring the, to me, essential ingredient of setting the tragedy within the context of the time. A time when there was endemic poverty and disease in English cities, when children were employed in factories, when slavery was still practiced in North America and the Caribbean. A time, moreover, when the great thinkers of the time were still grappling with the problem of how to respond to poverty, a problem that seems as intractable today as it ever was.
Janet refers to the “Two separate issues [that] need to be addressed. The first is the facts: what happened, where and when? The second is interpretation: why did it happen?” It is the second of these, the “why”, that has been of greatest concern to me in seeking to do justice to what is, without doubt, an event that did more than any other to shape the relationship between the Irish and their neighbour and still resonates today.
I shall bear Janet’s words very much in mind as I continue to search for the truth about the Great Irish Famine.
The post from Felicity Sidnel about cohousing that I re-blogged recently reminded me of something I read whilst researching the Irish famine of 1845-51. Prior to this traumatic event there existed in parts of the North West of the island a system of communal land occupation and cultivation known as rundale. It had remained unchanged for many centuries¹. It continued even though legal ownership of the land might be vested in a landlord with ties to the British mainland.
The people resided in a cluster of homes called a clachan. The adjacent land radiated out from the cluster and was farmed communally. The right to grow crops on individual plots rotated among the members so that each had the opportunity to use the best land. In some such communities plots were re-assigned every 3 or 4 years by the casting of lots.
Not that any of the land could be described as ‘good’ by comparison with the fertile soils of the Midlands and South East of the island. It was, however, capable of producing crops of oats and barley or rye, as well as grazing cattle. These uses would be rotated around the plots, the period when a plot was used for grazing providing a chance for the soil to regenerate, assisted by the manure deposited by the animals.
In many clachan‘s, it was common practice to take the animals to high ground, beyond the cultivated fields, to graze uplands that were incapable of being tilled. In some cases families would have a second, albeit rudimentary, home in the hills for summer occupation by younger members in charge of the herd. In my readings about rundale, I have yet to discover what their diet consisted of in this period. I can imagine they might have taken a supply of oats with them. I think it probable, also, that they would have cooked and eaten edible wild plants such as dandelion and nettle. They may even have caught and cooked small wild animals like rabbits, squirrels and hares.
Rundale has some similarities to the system of open field cultivation practiced right across Britain and Europe from medieval times. A key difference is that at the centre of each open field community was the manor house. The rest of the community were subservient to the Lord of the Manor. Otherwise, the rotation of holdings and of crops between plots was the same. The plots, however, took the form of long, narrow, strips. This system continued in some parts of Europe until late in the nineteenth century. In mainland Britain it ended with the enclosure movement which gained popularity with landlords (though not necessarily with the peasantry) throughout the eighteenth century.
In the West of Ireland, the arrival of the potato changed this pattern. The potato is a highly nutritious food that is easy to grow on poor soil so long as manure and/or seaweed is available to feed the plants. Such reliance on a single crop was, however, dangerous. There were failures of the crop in some years before 1845. The famines that accompanied such failures were short-lived because potatoes were grown in sufficient quantities the next year.
Repeated crop failure
It was repeated failures of the potato crop over a five year period that created the circumstances in which the Great Famine happened. By then, the same pressures that led to the enclosure movement in England were in operation in Ireland also. Rundale was being replaced by the re-allocation of land to single family holdings.
It is debatable whether such communal systems of agriculture are more or less efficient than single farm holdings. One factor that is very clear is that community based systems like rundale and the open field system are highly regulated. There may not have been a Lord of the Manor to manage the rotation of crops and the allocation of plots in rundale. There was, however, a hierarchy with a leader known as An Ri, or King. It was this man who supervised the casting of lots and organised such communal tasks as the mending of fences.
There is evidence that rundale continued in use in at least one Mayo parish until the end of the twentieth century. The open field system is still practiced in the Nottinghamshire parish of Laxton in England.
How do either compare to cohousing as described in Feicity Sidnel’s post? According to the website of the UK Cohousing network “Most cohousing communities have a common house, with shared facilities such as cooking and dining spaces, meeting and playing areas, laundries and guest rooms. Shared outside space for childrens’ play, parties and food growing (my emphasis) can feature in a cohousing project.” This is in addition to individual homes.
However, “The community is governed in a non hierarchical way.” But the item goes on to point out that: “Some communities also require residents to undertake a set number of hours work for the community.” Suggesting that a degree of regulation is needed, just as in rundale and the open field system.
¹Not everyone agrees about the origin of rundale. See Yager, Tom. “What Was Rundale and Where Did It Come From?” Béaloideas 70 (2002): 153-86. Web.